In Heart of Darkness, why does Marlow lie to Kurtz’s fiancée about Kurtz’s last words? Why not tell her the truth, or tell her that Kurtz had no last words, rather than confirming her sentimental ideas about Kurtz?

In Heart of Darkness, the choice to lie to Kurtz's fiancée about his last words is less a reflection of Marlow's character and more to do with Conrad's commentary on the relationship between the colonial frontier and the "home front." Kurtz's fiancée embodies the sheltered English men and women who had a sentimental and idealized image of colonialism, and by having Marlow lie about Kurtz's last words, Conrad demonstrates how this was not so much willful ignorance as deliberate deceit.

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Marlow's choice to lie to Kurtz's fiancée about his now infamous last words ("The horror! The horror!") is a pivotal scene in Heart of Darkness. However, in order to understand the significance behind the scene, we must first unpack the significance of Kurtz's intended.

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Marlow's choice to lie to Kurtz's fiancée about his now infamous last words ("The horror! The horror!") is a pivotal scene in Heart of Darkness. However, in order to understand the significance behind the scene, we must first unpack the significance of Kurtz's intended.

One of the few female characters in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz's fiancée remains unnamed, and her exclusive identifying factor is her relationship to Kurtz. This could naturally be interpreted through a feminist lens as highlighting how women were important only in relation to men and not in their own right. However, this namelessness also serves to emphasize the fiancée's wider applicability as a synecdoche* for all the women and indeed men who remained in England during the Scramble for Africa.

Thus, despite her small narrative role, the "Intended" plays a major thematic role by representing the "home front." Since one of the principal themes in Heart of Darkness is the juxtaposition between the portrayal of colonialism in England and the reality of colonialism in the Congo, Marlow's confrontation with the Intended is of critical thematic importance. For while it is easy to blame the supporters of colonialism during nineteenth century, Conrad reminds us through Marlow's reluctance to reveal the brutal truth of Kurtz's death that this idealistic view of colonialism was a result of propaganda and deliberate deceit.

*A synecdoche is when an author uses one part of a thing to refer to the whole. In this case, the Intended is one naive fiancée whose partner is an active participant in colonialism, but she is used by Conrad to represent the attitude of all English people who were not directly involved in colonialism.

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It seems perfectly natural and appropriate that Marlow should lie to Kurtz's fiancee when she asks him to tell her Kurtz's last words. Heart of Darkness was published over a hundred years ago. In those days women were treated with more deference and delicacy than they are in our modern times. There was a whole code of etiquette involved in men's relations with women. For example, men would either remove their hats or at least tip their hats when addressing ladies. Men would all stand up in a restaurant if a woman rose to leave the table, and they would stand up again when she returned and remain standing until she was seated. Some vestiges of such formal manners are still to be seen in public today, but times are changing, not necessarily for the better. There were, of course, many subjects that men could not discuss in the presence of ladies, and certain words they would never ever use. It is hard to imagine Marlow blurting out the truth that Kurtz's last words were "The horror! The horror!" Marlow was sufficiently quick-witted to come up with the perfect lie, which was that Kurtz's last words were his intended's name. The following quote from Heart of Darkness is illustrative:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
                                              

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We have to engage in some conjecture to answer this question. As such, several possible answers present themselves.

There may be a sense that the darkness Marlow found in Kurtz somehow belongs in the Congo and should remain there. To tell Kurtz fiance about his actual end would be to release this darkness into the wider world. 

We might also wonder if Marlow saw a purposeful/intentional and intact innocence in the fiance and did not want to destroy that innocence. 

Rather than explain the truth of Kurtz's life in Africa, Marlow decides not to disillusion her. He returns some of Kurtz's things to her—some letters and a pamphlet he had written—and tells her that Kurtz's last word was her name. (eNotes) 

Another possibility is that Marlow may feel that explaining Kurtz dissolution and his turn to evil is too much to explain. Marlow had to go all the way up the Congo River to discover what he does about Kurtz. The fiance has not made the same journey and so may not be prepared to understand the things that Marlow has seen. 

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At the end of the story, Marlow has been through a literal hell on Earth, and has witnessed the very worst of humanity as brutally shown by Kurtz. Marlow is disillusioned and tired; he wants nothing more than to forget the entire journey, but he knows that all of it, especially Kurtz's final words -- "The horror! The horror!" -- will stay with him forever. On meeting Kurtz's Intended, a nice young woman with no idea of Kurtz's terrible deeds, Marlow is torn between the desire to be truthful -- he has seen too many lies recently -- and the need to allow her a last piece of Kurtz to remember.

"'His last word -- to live with,' she murmured. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was -- your name.'"
(Conrad, Heart of Darkness, gutenberg.org)

It is possible that Marlow sees The Intended as the last good part of Kurtz, the last thing that he affected in a positive way, and he can't bear to destroy her with the truth about Kurtz. To spare her the terrible burden that he has been forced into, Marlow lies; his small lie gives her piece, and so the horrors that Kurtz created ended with some small good deed. Now The Intended can go on with her life, feeling that a great man loved her passionately, and she will never need to know what really happened.

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